America and the Joy of Low Expectations

I write this on a train from Bucharest to Transylvania, on an evening which also happens to be the morning of the 2016 US presidential election. I want to write about the United States, but my topic is not political – although, depending on the outcome of the election, my opinion of America may have shifted significantly by the Transylvanian morning.

I’ve been thinking differently about America since two years ago – which, in spite of all of my traveling, happened to be my first actual visit to the United States. One reason I delayed visiting for so long was because we Canadians – and yes, I now admit to the secret shame of being a Canadian – have been inundated with absurdly negative ideas about our neighbours to the south. “Oh, those Americans are so dumb,” a Canadian might say inbetween slapshots or hacks at the base of an uncommonly thick pine tree. “They’re all religious nutjobs who run around shooting at each other! Not like us – we’re so polite and peaceful, and we have universal health care!”

This vitriol exists in spite of, or probably because of, the fact that we are almost the same as them. There’s nothing as dispiriting as feeling like a culturally amorphous, geopolitically neutered knockoff of the world’s only remaining superpower (though this will change, either through the continuing rise of China or the continuing decline of the United States). And sure enough, we respond with typical Canadian passive-aggressiveness, even as we constantly travel to and voraciously consume the culture of this country that we profess to scorn.

I bought into all of this whole-heartedly, to the point that I was afraid to visit the US in spite of having spent a lot of time in far hairier places. But as luck would have it, I planned my first trip to Mexico two years ago and, never being one to pass up free stuff, I made sure to buy a ticket with the longest possible layovers in the US. Basically, I wanted to get a mini-vacation to the States added on as a bonus to my Mexico trip.

I had twenty-odd hours in Chicago on the way to Puerto Vallarta, and twenty-odd more in Houston going back. In Chicago I was amazed to experience so much friendliness in a big city, with people seemingly happy to stop for a chat or to give directions on the sidewalk without any of the Canadian guardedness that I had grown accustomed to. I admit in retrospect that this may be partly due to the peculiarities of midwestern culture, as Houston was not quite so overwhelmingly friendly. But even there, I was impressed by the delightful sass, swagger, and sheer liveliness of so many of the Americans I met.

My twenty-odd hours in Salt Lake City coming back from this year’s Central American trip were even more remarkable. People seemed astonishingly happy to engage me in conversation at the city’s crosswalks – the extraordinarily long waiting times provide ample time for chit-chat. I suspect that some of people’s friendliness in this mostly not-Mormon city came from a sense of solidarity within their overwhelmingly Mormon state, but explaining away friendliness doesn’t make it any less friendly.

One of these sidewalk conversations was with a Balkan immigrant who began regaling me with all of his grievances regarding life in SLC – of which he had many, after having spent most of his life there. But my main impression was not of his negativity, but rather of his openness. Finally, he led me to one of the better local bars and gave me his e-mail address before disappearing to spread his grief elsewhere. I ended up sitting up at the bar next to a very gregarious American girl who had grown up in SLC, moved away, but was back on a business trip and reopening plenty of fresh wounds from her Utah childhood. She eventually informed me, still very cheerfully, that she had a boyfriend and I shouldn’t get any funny ideas. However, rather than forbidding further conversation, she proceeded to gleefully call up her boyfriend on Skype so he could see the funny Canadian she was talking to. The night continued in this way, with me attaching myself to a certifiable man’s man named Mike and ending up another bar full of, once again, surprisingly inviting young hipsters. The topic of Utah’s absurd liquor laws (4% ABV limit on draught beer! 1 AM last call!) provided ample opportunities for commiseration, and I shared in the intense bonding that can only come from being forced to drink weak beer together. (For my teetotaling part, I did my patriotic duty by spending $3 for a Canada Dry ginger ale – the most I’ve ever spent for a soft drink, but hey!)

I e-mailed my new Balkan friend the next day, and he invited me to pick him up at his house and go for a walk. I dropped by, received my welcome drink of apple juice, and strolled with him in the gorgeous Utah sunshine while he regaled me with more of his grievances. After a bit more of this, I finally headed to the airport to catch my flight back to my chilly (in every sense) hometown in Canada.

With the exception of my Balkan buddy, I did discover that the friendliness of some of the Utahians I met was perhaps a bit shallow, to judge by their subsequent lack of interest in actually maintaining contact. Nonetheless, whether it was just an American version of false friendliness, or perhaps their condescending amusement toward their northern neighbour who totally says “aboot” (even though we totally don’t), I have to say their wide smiles and seeming openness put me into an incredibly positive frame of mind.

I admit that these hip, cosmopolitan cities may not accurately reflect the worst of middle America, but I do believe they represent something special about the American spirit of openness and liveliness. The basic paradox of America is that it is, by any normal standards of a developed country, an incredibly dysfunctional, cruel society which happens to be composed of the most vibrant, delightful individuals. Another paradox is that Americans are often insufferable overseas, where they so often drown out the locals with their bellowing; but back in their own country, where their loudness is the baseline, it comes across as endearingly vivacious rather than obnoxious.

I often come back to that most American of moments when a man in Chicago, while “at work” holding a sign advertising Subway sandwiches, started asking me for money to help him cover his medical expenses – talk about the working poor. But for each of those sad vignettes, there were a dozen times when Americans astonished me with their seeming willingness, authentic or not, to drop all barriers and relate to a total stranger on a completely human level; and as someone who comes from a society that sometimes values politeness over connection, that’s something I can appreciate. America, I used to think you were terrible, but it turns out you’re actually pretty cool. I could totally live in one of your progressive hipsterfied cities if I had a high-paying job with excellent health insurance. Feel free to offer me one

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